It was Cook! Today has been one of such emotion and upheaval I can hardly sort my head from my heart – oh, the relief at seeing her, and the fear of what is to become of her!
I walked from Lydiatt down to the village as slowly as I could this morning. In truth I did not want to find the cottage, or the couple, or Cook. I took rest on a bench near the Inn, before climbing the hill to St Beverel’s but after some minutes of gathering my breath and my strength I could find no further reason to delay.
The cottage was small but well looked after and as I approached I could see a woman in the garden. I hid for a while behind some hedging but began to feel too silly so I coughed a little and made as if to clear some mud from my shoe. The woman noticed me and called out,
“Good morning, Madam. Are you quite well? Do you need some help?”
I fiddled a moment longer with my shoe and then answered her.
“I do indeed need help and am grateful for your kindness.”
“Blindingham is a friendly place, Madam. We will always go to the aid of a soul in need, any one of us in the village.” She smiled at me and opened her garden gate to welcome me in. I ignored her shameful misrepresentation of the leaden boobies she lives amongst and went straight to the reason for my visit.
“I know the village well, thank you,” I said, “I am the mistress of Blindingham Hall. I am Mrs Josiah Hatherwick.”
The woman looked at me as though I had declared myself to be Queen Victoria herself. She rushed to bring me to a seat and produced a glass of lemon water from a jug on the bench beside me.
“You are Mrs Hatherwick?” she whispered after some time. “You are the poor lady whose house burnt down? Oh my dear Lady you must be beside yourself with worry. You are very welcome here, please be assured of that.”
“Actually, the Hall has not been entirely destroyed,” I told her, “Some damage was sustained to the West Wing and the Orangery, but I am confident that we shall be able to restore and refurbish it before long. I have had some very exciting ideas for new furnishings and will soon be instructing furniture makers and decorators. I want to create the feel of Osborne House whilst retaining the essence of the Hall as a country residence. There are some divine new upholstery fabrics in the London shops which I am sure would not be out of place down here.”
The woman listened to me with a look of comfort and a little confusion on her face. She did not answer.
“Of course, that is not why I have come to seek you out this morning. I am trying to find our Cook. She was in the Hall when the fire broke out and none of us has has seen her since. I have been given to understand she may have taken sanctuary with you.”
Another few moments passed before the woman spoke to me.
“My brother was fortunate enough to find a poor, distressed lady walking the road to Lydiatt in obvious disarray a week or so ago. She was confused and could not tell him her name. She said very little, in fact, except to keep worrying that supper was going to be late because she could not find the kitchen. John could not leave her to carry on walking the streets in that condition.”
“Indeed not,” I agreed, although I think had I been the one who found Cook rambling about supper in her undergarments I should have gladly left her to it.
“We took the lady in and have been caring for her but I must confess I am not best placed to provide the help she needs. Keeping her nourished and safe has left me little time for anything else.” She poured me another measure of lemon water as she spoke. “Can I ask, have you come to take her home?”
“Alas, I have not,” I told her, “My husband and I are depending on the kindness of our neighbours until the Hall is restored. I could not take her back there with me at all.”
“I see – yes. I should have deduced that for myself.” She sounded weary, such that I quite wanted to hug her for her kindness towards Cook. I did not, of course.
We spoke for a few mintes more and then she asked if I would like to see Cook, who was upstairs resting. I accompanied her into the cottage with some trepidation, I admit.
Cook was a sorry sight. She was lying in a tiny bed with her hair all matted and crazy around her face. She was snoring a little and wheezing as she slept. As I watched her I could of think of nothing so much as the bellows the staff use to draw the fires in London. They make a similar sound and are as fragile. I left the room quickly for fear of waking her up.
The woman was waiting for me at the foot of her staircase. “My brother and I can not care for her here, Mrs Hatherwick,” she said, “even though we are good Christians who know our duty. I am truly saddened at this lady’s plight, but what is to be done? She is not to be left unattended for more than a minute. I am frightened of what she might do.”
I knew at once that she was genuinely concerned for Cook’s safety and for her own. It is a marvel her tiny cottage had housed Cook for this long and remained intact. I had to make a responsible decision, as Cook’s former employer and as this woman’s superior.
“Please do not worry,” I said to her,” I shall send for a carriage from Horsham. She must return there. I know of no other action for the best. I will go straight now to the Post Office and send word to the sanitorium.”
The woman was shocked at my resolve.
“Horsham? Really?” she said. I nodded, holding my face in a grave and responsible expression.
“Horsham,” she repeated. “That poor, poor soul.”